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Paula Helle in her music room with student at piano
LEARNING: Inspiration, from a hilltop studio surrounded by farm fields.

Teaching music, with a side of community

How do you learn to be part of something bigger than yourself? Here’s how one music teacher does it — and what it means to rural communities everywhere.

As I write this, five kids from the state of Illinois are standing in Indianapolis, singing in the National FFA Chorus. That’s a fantastic accomplishment, no? But behind the music: Four of those five learned from the same music teacher.

That singular teacher is Paula Helle, and for her entire life, she’s taught rural kids across western Illinois to sing and play music, lacing it all with big lessons on using their gifts to serve their community. To raise their voices together and be part of something bigger.

Like Hannah and Emma and Joe and Halee. Kaity and Brittany. Jenna and Tom and Jaclyn. Kids who graced her classroom and her stage in the Ellisville Opera House. Over the past couple of decades, Paula has knit together a whole community of kids, from seven different rural schools, who call a 125-year-old opera house home. They know of long practices, teamwork, maybe some yelling, but mostly a lot of fun making music.

That’s like a good coach, right? I don’t know sports, but I know it takes an effective teacher (or coach) to develop raw talent into something usable and sustainable. Like when Paula marched across the warmup gym before a contest a couple of years ago, yelling, “Jenna, get that chin down! You’re going sharp!” She was right. Jenna laughed. And she kept her chin down. Noted.

Good teachers inspire devotion. They make hard work so fun that kids show up, day in and day out.

And here’s what else I know: Kids try harder and do darn near anything for someone who inspires them. And then they go do big things.

For example, they make the National FFA Chorus — where 80% of those Illinois kids stepped into Paula’s home atop a hill near Ellisville and learned to make better music, then take it back to their schools, their churches, their families.

So, here’s to the music teachers. You show us what it is to be part of something bigger than ourselves. And in a rural community, sometimes that’s everything.

Comments? Email holly.spangler@farmprogress.com.

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